About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is an attorney who gave up the active practice of law to edit and author books and articles for Nolo. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

If Friendly Neighbors Are So Important, Why Not Ask About Them When Buying?

An impressive 50% of prospective homebuyers say their top priority when it comes to neighborhood features is having friendly neighbors, says a recent Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homeowner Sentiment Survey.

This feature ranked higher for survey respondents than school district (at 41%), financial considerations (39%), and perceived investment value (37%).

The results reflect well on the common sense of today’s homebuyers. After all, a difficult or hostile neighbor can impact your personal financial considerations (for instance, if you get into a dispute over something like who pays for a damaged fence, and end up bringing or facing a lawsuit).

And a difficult neighbor can impact your home’s investment value, if a major issue makes the house harder to sell (“Pay no attention to that 12-foot spite fence, we’re suing the neighbor to take it down, tempted though we are to take a chainsaw to it.”)

At least neighbor problems don’t typically bring down an entire school district. But they can make life miserable, in the very place where you want to feel safe and relaxed.

But the question remains, why do so few people ask probing questions about a house’s neighbors before they buy? I can only report anecdotally, but as someone who visits open houses regularly, has sold a house that brought in multiple offers, and regularly talks to people about real estate, it seems that the matter of neighbor relations is often left for a post-closing surprise.

Real estate agents certainly know how important the neighbor issue is. I recently visited an open house at the property next to mine, introduced myself and was told by the agent, “Oh good! I can tell people I’ve met the neighbor!” (I guess the subtext was that I looked normal, phew.)

You now know why we included neighbor issues on the “Questions for Seller” worksheet that’s included in Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home. You can certainly get specific in your questioning, too, as in, “We notice the house across the street has five motorcycles parked on the front lawn. Has that led to issues with noise or anything?”

And there’s no need to stop with questions to the home seller. Try asking local friends for information, particularly those who follow any neighborhood listservs. They might tell you who the local “trolls” are, and know about other neighbor issues, disputes, or subjects of tension.

Also, as you go in and out of open houses, ask people on the street how they like living there, and how friendly the neighborhood generally. If you’re lucky enough to spot one of your prospective new home’s neighbors outdoors, perhaps weeding or walking the dog, definitely engage that person in conversation. You may be surprised at what you find out.

When Will You Personally Know an Immigrant Affected by New Enforcement Regime?

Someone should create one of those “seven degrees of separation” rules with regard to immigrants—that is, an indication of how many close friend-or-family ties away each person in the U.S. is from someone whose run-in with immigration authorities has them thinking, “What?! Not him/her! Is that really legal?”

Such exclamations and protestations have been common in many recent deportations from the United States. Even people who think mass removal is a good idea in general often want to carve out exceptions when they realize it’s going to be applied to a friend or long-time community member.

For instance, The New York Times ran a story called “He’s a Local Pillar in a Trump Town. Now He Could Be Deported.” It described how a town in which the majority voted for Trump was shocked when the manager of a local Mexican restaurant was arrested for being undocumented.

The article quoted one town resident as saying, “I think people need to do things the right way, follow the rules and obey the laws, and I firmly believe in that . . . But in the case of Carlos, I think he may have done more for the people here than this place has ever given him. I think it’s absolutely terrible that he could be taken away.”

For people within my own circle, that “not him” moment came when news surfaced about our long-ago high school theater director, Ruben Van Kempen—who came to the U.S. from Holland the year that most of my classmates were born—being refused Social Security retirement benefits because “The Department of Homeland Security is unable to verify the immigrant document you submitted as evidence of your lawful alien status.”

That’s bureaucratic error piled onto bureaucratic error—not only were the records missing, but Van Kempen had become a U.S. citizen decades ago, meaning that “lawful alien” is no longer the appropriate way to describe him. To suggest that he’s NOT lawful means that he’s undocumented, which is of course grounds for deportation. But fixing that error should be easy, right?

Not in the current harsh immigration enforcement regime. Van Kempen’s case turned into a nightmare of calls to Social Security and the Department of Homeland Security, neither of which agencies would offer help or answer his questions—until there was public outcry and his Congressional Representative stepped in and started asking questions.

But as Van Kempen told the Seattle Times, “I would still be considered an alien in my own country, and my file would still be sitting there buried, if a friend hadn’t thought to contact the Seattle Times . . . But your newspaper can’t profile every immigrant with a problem. That leaves me very unsettled.”

Wondering What These ICE “Check-Ins” Are That Are Getting People Deported?

To read the press of late, you might think that every undocumented immigrant in the country regularly checks into an office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The news aspect of this is that such check-ins are increasingly leading to the person’s deportation (removal) from the United States.

Anyone following the news reports has probably seen statements like these:

  • “In cities like New York and Baltimore, fear of ICE check-ins—which once felt customary for non-violent undocumented immigrants—are now causing waves of apprehension.” (The Chicagoist, April 18, 2017.)
  • “. . . numerous faith-based groups, immigration activists . . . and local politicians rallied in support of Ragbir during his “check-in” with ICE . . . What had been fairly routine in past years now seemed ominous. Ragbir, like dozens of others every day, did not know when he entered the Lower Manhattan building if he would see his family again.” (The Villager, March 27, 2017.)
  • “Immigrants—many of whom have lived and worked in the country for decades—have been arrested at home, at work, and at routine check-ins with ICE officials.” (Mother Jones, March 14, 2017.)

All these reports do a good job at conveying the fact that something that was once routine is now a frightening gamble and often a direct pathway to departure from friends, family, and job.

What they don’t convey as well is that the “routine” aspect applies only to a limited number of individuals; in some ways, the cream of the crop. Most of them are people who happened to have been caught up in the immigration system in the past and were specifically and individually deemed low priorities for deportation.

First, a bit of history. Immigration enforcement authorities in this country have rarely if ever received the amount of funding from Congress they’d like. So, they use “prosecutorial discretion” to pick and choose who to try to deport.

Past administrations focused on removing people who had criminal records or presented security risks. Lowest on the priority list were productive members of society who had lived here for a long time with no criminal records and who had family, community, church, employment, and other ties.

Deciding who is and who isn’t a high priority is not a casually made decision. In many cases, an undocumented immigrants who got arrested by ICE had to  supply extensive documentary evidence of their U.S. ties and good character before ICE would agree to stop pressing forward with their case.

If successful, the undocumented person didn’t obtain the same rights as, say, a green card holder. They were put into a sort of limbo status. Efforts to remove them were put on hold, on the condition that they continue to keep up their high standards of behavior and check in with ICE on an annual basis. The threat of removal is and was always there.

So, it’s only minority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are required to check in with ICE. For Americans who advocate the deportation of every last immigrant in the U.S., the natural conclusion is, “Well, arresting them at their check-ins is at least a starting point.”

But immigration advocates point out the absurdity of Trump claiming that his administration would focus on deporting “bad hombres,” then turning around and deporting the people lowest on the enforcement priority list–the people who were already known to the authorities, and being tracked and monitored. For now, anyway. Because, as John Amaya, former deputy chief of staff at ICE under President Obama, told WNYC News, “I don’t think they want to be detaining individuals–bringing them in during the regular check-ins only to detain them and remove them–because then no one’s going to be reporting. . . It would be a huge burden, and I think that’s why we want to make sure people do report and trust law enforcement.”

Undocumented Parents in U.S. Face Reality of Possible Separation

One of the more popular new articles on Nolo’s website is called “Arrest by ICE: How Can I Arrange to Protect My Child in the Event of Deportation?

The reason is obvious: Statements and order by Trump Administration officials express hostility toward the entire U.S. undocumented population, and recent actions by officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) indicate that it has wasted no time in acting upon this new mandate.

By way of background, the Obama administration also deported large numbers of undocumented immigrants–so many that President Obama was dubbed “Deporter-in-Chief” by immigration advocates.

But it also sought to conserve ICE resources by setting clear priorities: Undocumented immigrants with close family and community ties were to be largely left alone, so that ICE’s limited energies could be directed toward people who had committed crimes or were deemed to be security risks.

That set of priorities, and the predictability that came with it, is essentially gone. Thus we hear news reports of, for example:

  • U.S. citizen children watching as their mother, who has lived in the U.S. for 21 years, is taken away in an ICE van.
  • Deportation of another mother of U.S. citizen children, in the face of Mexican government protests that she had no criminal record and the action thus violated U.S. norms for deportation.
  • Deportation of a young man who was under the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and detention of another DACA-holding young man.
  • Arrest of a young undocumented woman who spoke out publicly about the raids that picked up her father and brother.

Some have wondered whether the media is highlighting the most dramatic cases and fomenting fear, The Washington Post ran the numbers, however, and found that arrests of noncriminal undocumented persons have doubled under Trump.

Undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children would do well to at least discuss what their emergency plan is and, as the Nolo article explains, “make specific arrangements to ensure their children will be cared for in the event of deportation.”

Put a Marble in Your Pocket Before Attending Open Houses!

Spring open house season is in full swing, with homes freshened up and blooming with as many colors as you’ll see outdoors. In all the excitement, however, there’s a home defect that’s all too easy to overlook–but requires major work to fix.

I’m talking about sloping floors. Just this weekend, I visited a beautiful Arts and Crafts style home from the 1920s, which met most of the marketing copy’s promises of having been “lovingly restored.”

But I got a funny, tipsy feeling while walking toward the corners, and no, I hadn’t had any mimosas with my brunch. The more I looked and walked, the more it became obvious that the floors sloped. Still, I would have loved a way to test how serious the problem was.

That’s where the marble comes in. Set it on the ground and see how fast it rolls in a particular direction. If you really want to plan ahead, bring a level.

A marble that speeds along at high pace is a sign of real trouble: perhaps a subsiding foundation or sagging joists or some other equally expensive-to-fix problem.

At the very least, if you love the home, you’d want to include an inspection contingency with your offer, and make sure the inspector you hire is either qualified to evaluate the situation or can tell you what sort of engineer or other professional has the right qualifications.

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